The other day as my two year old grandson and I were leaving a neighborhood park, he started to run down the sidewalk. I quickly caught him and told him that he cannot run on the sidewalk because it is too close to the street and too dangerous. I doubt the warning was effective but just to be sure he didn’t run again I said, “You can either hold my hand and walk with me or I’ll push you in the stroller.” I was pretty proud of myself. I offered him a choice, both of which seemed reasonable and would satisfy my safety concerns. Well, he didn’t find that choice satisfactory so he said, “I want to push the stroller.” OK, a different solution to our negotiated settlement was now on the bargaining table. At age two he is now as good a negotiator as I was after 15 years of law practice. I considered his proposal for a moment and realized that it was a very good way to settle this. If I let him push the stroller I could keep a hand on it so he could not run. From his perspective he would have the control he wanted, no hand-holding and no stroller-riding. I accepted and off we went.
Too often negotiations stalemate or break off completely because the parties are treating them like a zero sum game. I want to pay less so you must accept less. I want to win so you must lose. The parties focus on dividing a pie that they have arbitrarily made too small. When you and your negotiations counterpart get stuck, ask each other why the result each of you wants is important. Understanding why the other person feels they need a certain result can open the door to creative ideas to get both parties what they want.
Consider this example. I am asking $900 a month for an apartment I have for rent. A well-qualified applicant says she can only pay $850. One or both of us will not budge from our number. When I ask the applicant why she will not pay more than $850, she tells me about her car payments, student loan payments and expenses. I explain that I need $900 to cover my expenses which include her share of cleaning the hallways and common areas outside. She now offers to do that cleaning for free if I reduce the rent to $850. Since I am paying more than $50 per month for the cleaning, that is a good deal for me. We reach an agreement because we found a creative solution to our stalemate. This is a very simple explanation of principled negotiation.
Remaining open to creative ways to come to a deal and encouraging your counterpart to do the same can be very effective. My two-year old grandson does not yet purposefully think in these terms but I am happy he came up with a creative solution to our dilemma. The key to using creative solutions to solve difficult negotiations is to do it intentionally whenever a situation arises.Don’t wait until a good idea pops into your mind. Rather, ask “why” and then think creatively to help reach an agreement.
Reaching agreement with my grandson is usually easy. But I am mindful that he bargains from a strong position. Like any two-year-old, the nuclear option, the tantrum, is always on the table.